I’d never heard of Theatre Pro Rata. I didn’t know where it was or who was in the company. I went because I wanted to see the play. Is that so strange?
The play in question being The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Or so they say. No one really knows who wrote it. The play has been described as the first Elizabethan tragedy, which seems ridiculous, considering how murky the chronology of the era is. It dates from the early 1590s, though the evidence is scanty. Yet in 1589 Thomas Nashe was writing: “Yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences…; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets of tragical speeches.” Such remarks (and there are others) discomfit Shakespeare scholars who like to date Hamlet to 1601. So while some speculate that The Spanish Tragedy might have been a source for Hamlet, it could just as well have been the other way around. In any event, few dispute that the Elizabethans revived the tragedy as a theatrical form, which had been moribund since Roman times, and The Spanish Tragedy is a classic example of the genre: It seemed like something I ought to see.
The theatre itself (The Gremlin Theatre) is located near the corner of Raymond and University, in the vicinity of the Raymond Gallery, Jay’s Café, and Blue Moon Studio. There’s a pet store down the street where you can buy large snakes and perhaps even an iguana. The tickets are on a sliding scale from $14 to $41, and when you hand them a twenty they’re courteous enough to ask if you want change.
I arrived late due to an accident near the Lowry tunnel, and though I had a copy of Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born in my pocket, I stepped into the theatre just a moment before the curtain rose. (There is no curtain, but you know what I mean.) It looked to be a young crowd, many of them theater students and friends of cast-members, no doubt; the three post-adolescents seated directly behind me were actors or technical people who kept up a constant stream of anecdotal theater-chatter as I hastily scanned the program, looking for I know not what. I was thankful that one of the trio had been resting his foot on the back of the seat directly in front of him since he arrived, attempting to preserve his sight-line, and thus inadvertently keeping it open for me. It was a good seat.
As for the play itself, it took a little while to build up a head of steam. The actors were all fairly young and for the most part their voices were not commanding, even in such a small theatre space. To be fair, it isn’t easy for a bunch of twenty-somethings to generate atmosphere when they have to stand around in economical costumes during the opening scene of a play pretending to be seasoned warriors and diplomats, delivering lines like “Tell us about the battle,” nodding at one another and illustrating military stratagems with dominoes. (I saw the Guthrie production of Macbeth recently, and though the costumes were better and the voices deeper, it had the same problem in the early going—bringing gravity and authenticity to the small-talk of kings and courtiers that we’ve only just met. The Guthrie production benefited from an elaborate ten-minute battle-sequence with soldiers descending on ropes wielding machine guns before the play got going.) But as the play wore on, we got to know everyone, their parts became richer, and it seemed that they themselves could feel the thinness disappear. Of special note were Keith Prusak as the noble Hieronimo and Clarence Wethern as the conniving Lorenzo. Valerie Rigsbie was also top-flight from beginning to end, in several parts, though it seemed she had been dropped in from a different century.
The story of The Spanish Tragedy is complex enough to get lost in, which is good. I won’t describe it in detail. A ghost and his companion, Revenge, are lurking in the shadows throughout, and though it seems they could easily have been dispensed with, then we wouldn’t really have been seeing the play. Besides, the ghost has fine soliloquies at both ends of the drama and his leering presence does add to the strangeness of the proceedings.
Meanwhile, the focus of the play changes midway, shifting from the amours of Bel-Imperia (who loves Horatio) and the machinations of her brother Lorenzo (who prefers the noble Portuguese captive Balthazar to be her husband) to the grief and rage of Horatio’s father Hieronimo following the murder of his son. The play has a mad scene, a feigned mad scene, a play-within-a-play, a ghost, and (as I mentioned) a character named Horatio, all of which may remind us of Hamlet—although these elements are not arranged in the same way, nor do they serve the same purposes. It also has beautiful lines we wish we could remember, but won’t, because, unlike Hamlet, we haven’t seen the play ten times. For example, at one point, after hiring an underling to commit a murder and then arranging for the woman to be caught in the act, Lorenzo (who has already arranged for Horatio’s murder) offers a chilling defense of his actions.
Thus must we work that will avoid distrust;In the end, The Spanish Tragedy is simpler and more direct than Hamlet, in both speech and action, which is both a good and a bad thing. I think it might have benefitted from a few yards of scarlet cloth to simulate all the blood. And the first act might have been more intelligible had it been made clearer that Lorenzo’s preference for Balthazar over Horatio had a class basis. (But I probably just missed something.) Considered on its own terms, The Spanish Tragedy is a rollicking good time, with romance, suspicion, nobility and knavery, shootings, hangings, knifings, and six dead bodies on the stage as the final curtain drops. (There is no curtain, but you know what I mean.)
Thus must we practice to prevent mishap,
And thus one ill another must expulse.
This sly enquiry of Hieronimo
For Bel-imperia breeds suspicion,
And this suspicion bodes a further ill.
As for myself, I know my secret fault,
And so do they; but I have dealt for them.
They that for coin their souls endangered,
To save my life, for coin shall venture theirs:
And better it's that base companions die,
Than by their life to hazard our good haps.
Nor shall they live, for me to fear their faith:
I'll trust myself, myself shall be my friend;
For die they shall, slaves are ordained to no other end.
I spoke with artistic director Carin Bratlie at intermission, and she mused whether this production might be a regional premier. We can be thankful that Theatre Pro Rata took on the challenge, and made such a rousing success of it.
Now I almost wish I hadn’t asked for change.